PDGA helps put a different spin on golf

Brian Thompson crouched about 10 feet away from a metal basket topped by hanging chains, his feet planted firmly as he clutched a disc in each hand. He flicked his wrist out once, then twice.

Finally, in the stillness of the early July evening, he threw his disc toward the basket and the quiet was broken as the disc hit the hanging chains and bounced to the ground.

It was a frustrating moment for Thompson because it was a putt he knew he should have made. And it was a moment not unlike what Thompson experienced during his years playing traditional golf.

Disc golf is similar to traditional golf, using many of the same terms, but played with a flying disc and the hole is the basket.

And yes, the frustrations are also a part of the game.

“It’s the same kind of thing,” said Jeff Vest, a member of Thompson’s foursome Tuesday night at Herman Hill Park in south Wichita. “It’s an unperfectable game, but you’re always trying to perfect it.”

Thompson and Vest will join six other Wichitans at the Professional Disc Golf Association’s amateur world championships in Emporia. Nearly 600 participants from six countries will compete in the championships.

And while winning their age divisions is the ultimate goal, competing and having fun is the real goal.

“I’m probably in the bottom third of ranked players in my division,” said Thompson, who is 29. “I’m going there to have a good time. I want to play well, but I won’t be disappointed if I don’t.”

Bob Decker, the treasurer and former president for the PDGA, picked up the game in 1996 and at 58 will be competing in his eighth world amateur championships.

“There are people from 5, 6 years old up to 80 or so playing disc golf,” Decker said. “It’s good for you physically, keeps you moving but you don’t overstress your joints and muscles. It’s a lot of fun, that’s the most important thing.

“‘Most fun wins’ — you’ll hear that a lot in disc golf.”

Disc golf is lauded by those who play as a family-friendly sport that is inexpensive (free at local courses) and can be played at any age.

Yet disc golf can also be highly competitive.

Twenty disc golfers showed up for league play Tuesday night at Herman Hill. Some had push carts to hold all their discs, while others had specialized bags.

There was definitely a low-key approach as the foursome of Thompson, Vest, Brandon Tull and Casey Fluty walked to their first hole. Tull and Fluty also will compete in the world amateur championships.

Before Tull stepped to the tee pad, there was a round of high-fives. After Tull took a running start and then, at the end of the tee pad, threw his disc, there was a loud, “nice shot!”

Many disc golfers use a running start on long throws, meant to increase the distance of the throw, and Tull nearly did a 180 spin as he threw on a particularly long hole. But as they get closer to the basket, they are stationary, only moving their arm, or even just their wrist.

There’s various throwing styles. Most use a version of the classic Frisbee throw, but at one point, to get over the tall trees along Broadway, Vest threw the disc almost like he was throwing a baseball. He threw the disc overhand and upright, thus avoiding the lower jutting branches that too often slow the progress of the disc or knock it to the ground.

The foursome played fairly quickly, but the pace depends on who’s playing. The game can be social and competitive at the same time.

“Basically, it’s a big fraternity of guys who like to throw Frisbees,” Vest said.

Vest started playing disc golf three years ago after playing traditional golf through college.

“It’s my affordable way of still competing,” he said. “… I never feel like I have to play a full 18 holes. If I had paid greens fees, I’d feel compelled to finish it.”

For Thompson, the affordability also led him to disc golf, and the course at Oak Park is a short walk from his house.

“You start out and it’s real tough,” he said. “You don’t know how to throw the disc, but you figure it out.… It’s a competitive sport, but you’re not rooting against any of your competitors. I can’t even count the amount of friends I’ve made out there. All different sorts.”

Disc golfers are diverse in age and backgrounds. They aren’t simply the hippies that many people associate with the game, Thompson said with a laugh.

Not only are they passionate about the sport, they want it to grow. Most are quick to teach another, handing out tips to improve.

There’s hope that Wichita will build more courses, too. Mike Speer, an avid disc golfer who ran the league on Tuesday, said the Air Capital Disc Golf Club has talked to Wichita officials often about adding courses.

Just trying disc golf can lead to an addiction, which is what happened toThompson, who has a basket in his basement so he can practice.

“The best thing about disc golf is it’s a sport that anybody can play,” Decker said. “If you’ve ever liked throwing a Frisbee, you’re likely to like disc golf. You can go out and do it with a free Frisbee you get from a promotional package or you can play at the level I do, as an amateur that carries 20-some discs designed for disc golf. Or there are people around the world who make al iving at it.”